“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.” – M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart
Budapest evokes the word “dichotomy”. The city is bisected by the vast Danube into the hilly Buda and wide avenues of Pest. Only 150 years ago were the two married when the Chain Bridge between the two halves was unveiled, creating a metropolis and the erstwhile capital of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. The two sides still maintain a friendly rivalry as the grand and stately Buda contrasts with the busy and bohemian Pest. During the day, many hike up the regal hills of Buda for a panoramic view of the city; in contrast, the historically commercial Pest side comes to life after dark as ruin bars and restaurants emerge, al fresco, buzzing with the promise of debauchery.
Budapest’s beauty lies in its people, and how the people have made use of natural or pre-existing landscapes. The city straddles the vast Danube, yet the magnificent bridges spanning the river are perhaps the true highlights. Budapest sits on top of hundreds of thermal springs, which have been harnessed into world-famous hot springs and public baths, one of the final vestiges of Turkish culture. Vacant buildings around the city have been converted into kert (garden) bars – grungy outdoor beer gardens or clubs, decorated with street art and graffiti. Better known as ruin bars, many in the old Jewish quarter, kerts have become the favourite hang-out spots of locals and tourists, home to a hip and artsy bustle. The historic buildings belie Budapest’s particular youthfulness, often revealing itself as the sun dips below the hills of Buda.
The city’s volatile history lurks around every street corner. The Budapest skyline is dominated by neo-gothic and neo-baroque buildings: the Hungarian Parliament building spreads across the Pest riverbank, while St. Mathias Church, Buda Castle, and Royal Palace sit proudly atop Castle Hill. The bullet holes and shrapnel marks on World War 2 buildings and from the 1956 uprising are inescapable, and secret police buildings stand even on the grand avenues of Pest. And yet, despite this often tumultuous and oft oppressive past, modern Budapest has emerged, and a range of new attractions display the achievements of local artists, designers, and chefs, giving the city a distinct authenticity. Through centuries of oppression and tyranny, the clash of cultures has been transformed into an animated energy.